Opening Open Source to Women

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How one open source software community massively increased female participation, and what other organizations can learn from their efforts.

By Marina Zhurakhinskaya (Senior Software Engineer, Red Hat)

The GNOME community develops a free and open source software desktop and many popular applications for it. Software developers, user experience and graphic designers, documentation writers, translators, community managers and evangelists from around the world collaborate on the project. Behind each half-yearly release, there are about one thousand volunteers and employees of GNOME-supporting companies. Red Hat, where I work, is one of the biggest supporters.

A few years ago, in July of 2009, I attended GUADEC, the GNOME Users and Developers European Conference. Of approximately 160 attendees, I was one of only seven women. Of the software developers working on the entire GNOME project at the time, one of only three.

The scarcity of women, however, at this conference and on this project, wasn’t surprising. Women are estimated to represent 3% of open source contributors. In the US today, women represent 25% of all software developers and 18% of students currently graduating with computer science degrees. The participation of women in open source is particularly low even when compared to the already low participation of women in computer science.

Shortly after this 2009 conference, the GNOME Foundation Board of Directors asked if I would be willing to lead an outreach effort for GNOME aimed at bringing women into the community and mentoring participants. I agreed and created the Outreach Program for Women with the help and support of Stormy Peters – then GNOME Foundation Executive Director, the GNOME Foundation Board of Directors, and members of the GNOME community.

A Big, Visible Pipeline

We started off by improving communication between women already in the community, making their work more visible, and creating resources about how to get involved. To enable women joining the community to ramp up faster, we began offering internship opportunities for women twice a year. So far, we have had five rounds of internships and 63 participants. We are looking forward to the biggest round yet this summer. Karen Sandler, the GNOME Foundation’s current executive director, helped expand the program beyond GNOME to include many free and open source software organizations. The Mozilla, Wikimedia, Linux, and OpenStack Foundations are among 18 organizations participating this summer.

The number of women at GUADEC has gradually grown to about 41 attending GUADEC 2012, almost six times as many as three years earlier. In a recent survey of newcomers who joined and stayed involved in 12 open source organizations, 50% of GNOME respondents were women whereas only 6% of the respondents from other organizations were women, with no other organization having more than 15%. The organizations that joined the Outreach Program for Women more recently will no doubt see similar changes. 

Lessons Learned

In our experience organizing the Outreach Program for Women, we learned that women interested in technology are staying out of open source because they are not sure if other community members will treat them respectfully, prefer not to be the only woman in the group, or are uncertain about embarking on the solitary exploration typically needed to get up to speed in open source. To overcome these challenges, our Outreach Program for Women introduces participants to friendly and mature open source communities, provides a supportive community of women and men involved with the program, connects women with mentors who can help them get started and guide them in their contributions, and provides a focused opportunity to gain experience.

Contributing to open source is valuable for both social and professional reasons. Open source allows anyone to make innovative changes that reach many people, some of whom might not be able to afford proprietary alternatives. It supercharges innovation, as other people can build on top of the freely available software. Open source contributors build and showcase publicly important development and collaboration skills, which are in high demand with employers and can help when creating one’s own business.

Like our businesses, our software will be better if more people with diverse backgrounds are involved with its creation. The open source community is embracing this view by taking steps to ensure women feel welcome. I hope more women will find open source to be open to them and explore it.

About the guest blogger: Marina Zhurakhinskaya is a senior software engineer at Red Hat, working on the GNOME desktop. Since 2009, she has been organizing GNOME’s Outreach Program for Women, which now includes multiple Free and Open Source Software organizations. Marina uses her experience with outreach to women to improve outreach to all new contributors in GNOME and Free and Open Source Software. She lives in the Boston area. Follow her on Twitter @marinaz

Photo credit: opensourceway via Flickr